Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Powell-Harrison partnership succeeds

Senator Benjamin Harrison introduced John Wesley Powell's Grand Canyon National Park bill on May 9 1882, five months into the first session of the 47th Congress. In what would seem to be routine actions, S. 1849 was referred to the Public Lands Committee, and sent to the Secretary of the Interior on May 15 to obtain the Department's views. The Committee chairman was P. B. Plumb, Republican of Kansas, apparently a far-seeing legislator who held the post until 1891, that year overseeing passage of an extensive revision of the public land laws which included this last section:
Sec. 24. That the President of the United States may from time to time set apart and reserve, in any State or Territory having public land bearing forests, in any part of the public lands wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations: and the President shall, by public proclamation, declare the establishment of such reservations and the limits thereof.
We will get to that. 

Now it is a fixture of our history that there is dilatory, even corrupt, behavior to be expected in matters dealt with by the bureaucracy of the General Land Office, which commented on S. 1849. Not here, for the Secretary had the reply on May 24. Could this have been usual? It is fun to think about Powell's USGS also being in Interior. Too, the GLO was kind: "The objects to be attained by the bill ... appear to me to be worthy the consideration of Congress."

The GLO efficiently noted that the "Yavai Suppai" reservation was so new it was on no map, but would be within the proposed boundary and should be excepted. Also, any lands "settled and improved upon" should be exempted. Finally, since the technical means to determine the latitudes and longitudes were not available, the boundary was re-defined in miles. Instead of lying between 111° 45' and 112° 45', and  35° 45' to 36° 45', the language said from the junction of the Colorado and Little Colorado, go east 2-½ miles. Then go north 40 miles, west 56, south 69, then back north 29. 

I am sad to say that I am not sophisticated enough a blogger to include or reference any relevant map. So imagine a large rectangle that includes to the north almost all of the Kaibab Plateau, and to the south all the forested lands, halfway to the Flintstones. More than half of Marble Gorge is included, and the western boundary goes beyond Kanab & Havasu Canyons. The western half of the Canyon is completely ignored, while a huge amount of ponderosa forest is included. Strange for Powell not to have applied his on-the-ground knowledge, and depressing to see right from the start how issues of appropriate boundaries existed at the beginning and are still with us. A grand gesture, like a sweeping bow that knocks over the furniture.Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller was unimpressed.

Teller had just left the Senate the month before to become Secretary. A boom-and-boost Westerner, on May 24, he transmitted the GLO report with language whose spirit resonates with every exploiter's hopes since:
It is questionable whether the withdrawal of so large a tract of the public land from sale and settlement is advisable at the present time...The natural scenery along the Colorado River of the West, within the boundaries of the proposed reservation does not require the creation of a public park to preserve it. Believing that its full benefits can be enjoyed by the public without interfering with the right of settlement or entailing upon the United States the expense of the care and improvement of the proposed reservation, I am of the opinion that this Bill ought not to become a law.
This did not seem fatal, for the GLO version of the bill was back in the Public Lands Committee for only a few days before being reported on May 29. However, this speedy transit -- three weeks from introduction to coming out of committee -- did not portend any future, for no further action was taken on the bill. Nothing in the records indicates responsibility for this demise. Its life as a gesture continued. During the next two Congresses, in 1883 &1886, Harrison introduced the amended version early in the first session.* In those Congresses, he chose to serve on the Territories Committee. As President he did make an extensive tour of the West in 1891. And as President, finally, all the gestures led to something solid. 

Harrison was elected to the Presidency in 1888, after failing to be given a second term in the Senate. In 1891, he took his western swing, and Senator Plumb got the land laws revised, including this really tight language: the President might reserve "any part of the public lands wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations". The man was in place; the tool was at hand.

On Feb 14 1893 (Harrison, by the way, had been defeated in his re-election effort a few months earlier and would be out of office in a month), Powell (still USGS Director) "in compliance with your oral instructions" reported to Secretary of the Interior J. W. Noble on a public reservation of lands:
The region ... embraces the most important scenic features of the Grand Canyon ..., the most stupendous chasm known on the globe, the picturesque features of which are elsewhere unequaled... The plateaus on the north and south ... are covered with great forests which will thus be protected from spoliation. ... The region has been topographically surveyed and mapped and can be defined with accuracy.
Interestingly, he reverts to a description given in latitude and longitude. Even more interestingly, he has lopped off the northernmost 15', setting the boundary at 36°30', and leaving 18 linear miles of great forest not "protected from spoliation". Perhaps revealingly, when he comes to repeat that number he writes 58 instead of 36. The area, he says, will include 2,893 square miles, about 1.85 million acres.

The Secretary endorses the proposal, sending it to the GLO Commissioner for "early" report and a proclamation creating a Forest Reserve. A few days later, the Commissioner returns the proclamation in duplicate, with an official map of Arizona, saying that the land is unsurveyed, and the greater portion are "granted and indemnity lands of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad". All flowery language is eschewed in favor of public lands "are in part covered with timber" and "the public good would be promoted". Indeed there is no mention of the Grand Canyon, except in the title. Moreover, the efficiency or sympathy of 1882 is gone, for there is no mention of the "Yavai Suppai" either. What is mentioned is "settlement" in three paragraphs, to wit: unaffected is any settlement that is legal or covered by lawful filing or made pursuant to law; all mining claims duly located; except if the claimant or entryman doesnt comply with the law or tries anything after this takes effect.

Noble's cover letter is a bit more expansive, back to speaking of "the great forests". This, he says, "I deem one of the most important and valuable reservations to which I have had the honor to invite your attention. The forests are the most magnificent on this continent, and the wonders of the Canon of the Colorado should be preserved in this connection as an inheritance for the people." He goes on to protection: "The rail roads have not yet reached this region and settlements have not been made. It is a fortunate opportunity to reserve control of the timber and protect the approaches to the river from early individual appropriation, and subject them to the rules and regulations of this government)." If only...  And even today, Noble's sentiments are both honored and breached.

The proclamation went to Harrison on Feb 20 1893 and he signed it the same day. One might hope that, at least, Powell and Harrison had a cigar and a glass together.

*S. 541 on Dec 10 1883; S. 863 on Jan 5 1886.

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